A joint family system is an extended clan comprising multiple hierarchical tiers of relatives with their respective spouses and children. They live under one roof, eat meals together and try to get along.
It is the elderly, who mostly prefer this system, because it alleviates their insecurities regarding age, loneliness and being excluded from their adult children’s lives.
The question of prime importance is: what does Islam say about the joint family? By the joint family we mean married children and their elderly parents living together in one house, usually with their bedrooms opening on to a common area and a shared kitchen.
Three issues that are of core importance in Islam to the traditional joint family situation, but are severely undermined by them, need to be pointed out along with scholarly views, Insha’Allah.
“The In-Law is Death”
Whilst most women endeavor to cover themselves from visitors, they dress and interact before some non-Mahram residents of the house, such as male servants or brothers-in-law, as they would before Mahrams. This practice is in complete defiance of the commands of Islam, which is evident from the Hadeeth below.
It was reported from Uqbah Ibn Aamir that the Messenger of Allah (sa) said: “Beware of entering upon women.” A man from among the Ansar said: “O Messenger of Allah, what about the brother-in-law?” He said: “The brother-in-law is death.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
From this Hadeeth, it is clear that a married Muslim woman must observe full Hijab in the presence of her husband’s male relatives, except his father, sons from another wife or grandfathers. Included foremost in this Hijab are her husband’s brothers.
Death or its causes are something no one would take lightly. Yet, we carelessly disregard this aspect of Islam.
Etiquette of Privacy from Blood Relations Ordained in the Quran
“O you who believe! Let your legal slaves and slave-girls, and those among you who have not come to the age of puberty ask your permission (before they come to your presence) on three occasions; (i) before Fajr (morning) prayer, and (ii) while you put off your clothes for the noonday (rest), and (iii) after the Isha (late-night) prayer. (These) three times are of privacy for you, other than these times there is no sin on you or on them to move about, attending (helping) you each other. Thus Allah makes clear the Ayat (the Verses of this Quran, showing proofs for the legal aspects of permission for visits, etc.) to you. And Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise.” (An-Nur 24:58)
In the aforementioned verse of the Quran, Allah (swt) commands even young children of a Muslim couple to be prevented from entering upon them in their bedrooms without prior permission, during three times – before Fajr, after Dhuhr (during siesta) and after Isha.
Contrast this to how most young Muslim couples live in a single bedroom along with their children in most joint family households. Even nocturnal conjugal relations occur in the same room, whilst children are asleep in close proximity. This cultural practice needs to be strongly condemned, because it is in clear disobedience to the Quranic injunctions.
The Right to Private Accommodation
All Islamic scholars are in unanimous agreement that married Muslim women are entitled to private accommodation in Islam, which preserves their privacy from their husbands’ relatives.
Sheikh Salih Al-Munajjid states: “Whatever meets her needs is sufficient, such as a room in good condition with a kitchen and bathroom – unless the wife has stipulated larger accommodation in her marriage contract. He (her husband) does not have the right to make her eat with any of her in-laws. The kind of accommodation provided must be commensurate with what the husband is able to provide and be suitable according to local custom (urf) and the social level of the wife.”
However, he goes on to explain, “If he is able to provide (his wife) with accommodation that is completely separate from his family, that will be better (for her). But if his parents are elderly and need him, and they have no one else to serve them, and the only way he can serve them is by living with them, then he has to do that.” (Islam-QA.com)
It is better, therefore, to live in separate accommodation that allows the son to be physically near his parents and other relatives. An example of this could be two houses in the same compound or apartments that are one above the other, or at a walking distance from each other. Please note that a wife should practice patience, if she has to give up her right due to her husband’s financial constraints.
Our culture strongly supports a joint family. It expects sons to dwell with their elderly parents in their homes and financially support them, even if the latter are well-off. This belief that the elderly should be cared for by a son and his wife is inherently faulty, because it assumes that everyone has sons. What about couples with no children or those with only daughters, or the elderly who are single? Who will take care of them?
In Islam, a son and daughter are equally obliged, both financially and physically, to support aged, needy parents. No discrimination exists on this Fiqh issue, except that a daughter’s husband has more rights on her than her parents. If he allows, she may have her parents dwell in her own home to take care of them. There is nothing wrong with that.
The Ideal Living Scenario
Living as nuclear families at considerable distances from each other, physically and emotionally, is not the ideal picture for Muslim families, unless dire necessity dictates it. Our Prophet (sa) and his companions provided separate living quarters for their wives. In his last days of sickness, the Prophet (sa) was taken care of by his wives and friends, not his offspring.
There are many advantages of living near relatives, e.g., young mothers can have accessible babysitting and the sick elderly have someone nearby to provide care. Company is nearby, and this alleviates loneliness and depression. Children grow up more sociable, if they consistently meet relatives of different ages. The strict discipline of young parents, when balanced with indulgent pampering of grandparents, does wonders for a child’s self-confidence.
On the downside, living together under one roof facilitates considerable control, interference and subtle manipulation of the younger ones by the elders. Grandchildren can challenge their parents’ authority by simply throwing a tantrum before grandparents. In the worst cases, the joint family thwarts practicing Muslims’ application of Deen in their family lives; even regarding Islamic commands that are obligatory.
Dr. Hina, a lecturer and mother of a 6-year-old son has been living in a joint family since her marriage, whilst pursuing her career. She says: “The joint family has numerous advantages, such as having the house clean and the food cooked when you come home; having someone to baby-sit your child if you have to study or work long hours, and no loneliness because people are around. The disadvantages are that you are constantly told what to do and how to do it; you cannot bring up your child without others interfering, or manage your space the way you want to. Despite full efforts at observing Hijab, accidental slips keep occurring before a brother-in-law. Also, sisters-in-law visit their parents too often, causing sour relationships.”
Because of the soaring prices of property and rent nowadays, young newlyweds have to live in a joint family after marriage, even among non-Mahram men, despite the difficulty of maintaining Hijab. Such a scenario requires a high dose Taqwah (Allah consciousness), e.g., lowering the gaze, draping a large chador, knocking before entering rooms, avoiding mixing freely, using door locks when required and abstaining from eavesdropping or asking prying questions.
If parents want all their married sons to live under one roof, they should renovate the house in such a manner that everyone can observe the limits of Allah (swt). It does not cost much to construct two extra rooms with a kitchenette. The problem lies in giving preference to culture and familial tradition over obeying commands of religion.
Sheikh Salih advises a Muslim wife whose in-laws restrict her movement: “You should understand that your husband’s parents may make things difficult for you, because they think that you have taken away the one who is most dear to them. Therefore, you should handle this matter wisely and not be the cause of arguments or division between your husband and his parents. Rather, you should try to help your husband obey and honour his parents, and you will find the effects of that, Insha’Allah, in your own children [i.e., they will honour you in turn].” (Islam-QA.com)
Such wise words need no more explanation.